LOS ANGELES — As the final seconds were winding down, and the implications of Notre Dame’s impending 22-13 victory over USC were beginning to sink in, linebacker Manti Te’o bounded around the Fighting Irish bench with a message for anyone and everyone.
“It don’t matter,” Te’o shouted. “Just like I said.”
Te’o was still feeding off the high of a goal-line stand that had begun to empty the sold-out LA Coliseum moments earlier, but his pet phrase — used to buck up the rest of the defense when it is in the shadow of its own goal post — serves as a fitting mantra for top-ranked Notre Dame’s unlikely, unbeaten run to the national championship game.
It doesn’t matter how the Fighting Irish got here to 12-0 — with the help of overtime and good fortune against Stanford and Pittsburgh, plus the aid of late-season losses by Alabama, Oregon and Kansas State.
It doesn’t matter how they have looked at times, squeaking past BYU and Purdue at home with an offense that seems to generate just enough to get by. It doesn’t even matter that they got to play USC without its star quarterback Matt Barkley, who was out Saturday with a separated shoulder.
It doesn’t matter that nobody else expected anything more than seven or eight wins from a schedule that looked devastatingly difficult at the start of the season.
Here they are – the Notre Dame Fighting Irish against somebody on Jan. 7 in South Florida: Alabama, Georgia or (perhaps by slight chance) Oregon.
“I can’t believe we’re going to the national championship,” Te’o said outside the locker room, nearly an hour after the win. “It’s something you always dream of, (but) throughout this whole season, we focused from week to week to week. We didn’t look at the big picture.
“So when we stepped into this game, we understood that this was Game 12 and we had to take care of Game 12 to get to Game 13. After it was over, we looked at the scoreboard and said, ‘What’s next?’ The national championship.”
Their arrival was stamped, fittingly enough, by a pair of fourth-quarter, goal-line stands, the type which have stamped their season. The Irish had stopped Pittsburgh, forcing a field goal instead of a touchdown that made a comeback possible. And they had beaten Stanford, when they stoned the Cardinal at the goal line in overtime (with the help of a replay official).
But with USC, hanging with Notre Dame despite freshman quarterback Max Wittek replacing Barkley, with a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line after consecutive pass interference penalties, the Irish could not be budged.
Two sneaks by Wittek were stuffed, as was tailback Curtis McNeal’s dive. On fourth down, fullback Soma Vainuku was open in the flat but he could not hang on to Wittek’s low throw while tumbling in the end zone.
“If you followed us at all this year, that’s how we play,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, in his third season. “We come up big defensively at some point in the game. We did that again. Unbelievable goal-line stand.”
The idea that Notre Dame, with its bungled coaching hires, stringent academic requirements and glaring lack of speed, could compete for a national championship seemed quaint just a few months ago.
But along with the glittering metallic golden domes and the sheen of the Notre Dame brand, the mystique of the Irish has been restored.
When Raul Ibanez belted pinch-hit homers for the Yankees in the MLB playoffs? Well, of course he would. And when the Lakers or Celtics find good fortune on their way to a playoff victory? It always seems to figure.
So, earlier in the fourth quarter, when USC coach Lane Kiffin sprinted down the sideline to call timeout — wiping out a touchdown pass from Wittek to Marqise Lee — it figured that the Trojans would have to settle for a field goal.
But don’t call it luck of the Irish.
“I wouldn’t call it luck, but I would call it consistency,” said Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. “Everybody calls it luck or whatever, but I think we play sound defense and feel like we’re a very good team.”
The Notre Dame defense was not the only unit that played to form. The offense, behind the determined running of Theo Riddick, had to settle for five field goals from Kyle Brindza. But there were no turnovers and enough key plays along the way — Riddick keeping a foot inbounds to convert a third-down reception and tight end Tyle Eifert’s juggling catch for another.
Brindza also brought down the electric Lee near midfield, preventing him from returning a kickoff for a touchdown.
“You can see those guys understand the game and they really play well together,” Kiffin said of Notre Dame. “They’re very physical, they’re pretty old school. That’s why they’ve got a lot of their games with close scores. They’re not very exotic. But they don’t screw up.
“You’ve got to play really well to beat them. They’re not going to hand you things — just like tonight: They go 69 plays without a turnover. You’re going to win a lot of games when you do that.”
So maybe it is not an accident, or good fortune, that is helping Notre Dame win these games. Maybe it is part of a plan, the same determination that seems to show up most on the goal line.
“It doesn’t matter what they do, it doesn’t matter where the ball is,” Te’o said. “It’s just a mentality. It doesn’t matter where you put the ball down. It doesn’t matter where it ends up as long as it doesn’t cross the goal line. It really doesn’t matter.”
For those who believe Notre Dame will be exposed in the title game, that Alabama or anyone else will reveal how fortunate the Irish have been this season, and how the gap is substantial between the Irish and the SEC’s best … well, perhaps they are right.
But for a team that is used to being discounted, does it really matter?